Home Is the Sailor

One hundred years ago this month, John Paul Jones was welcomed home with great fanfare at the U.S. Naval Academy. But was the body really his?

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But the French king, in that year after the fall of the Bastille, had more pressing business to attend to, as did Washington, apparently. So Jones, his health and spirit failing, was left waiting in the rue de Tournon. Gouverneur Morris, the snobbish American minister to France, had little patience with the importunate sailor—a mere gardener's son, by the way—who visited him far too often. "He has nothing to say," Morris wrote snidely in his diary, "but is so kind as to bestow on me all the Hours which hang heavy on his Hands."

Morris' journal entry for July 18, 1792, notes: "A Message from Paul Jones that he is dying. I go thither and make his will." After this tiresome business was complete, the American diplomat hastened off to dinner, and then to call upon his mistress. Finally, later that night, the couple brought a doctor to the rue de Tournon, where they found Jones facedown on the bed, already turning cold.

Although the unmarried and childless Jones was far from impoverished at the time of his death, Morris decided that he should be buried "in a private and economical manner." A French admirer ended up footing the bill for a respectable funeral, but it was hardly a send-off worthy of a world-renowned hero. The cortege wound its way through Paris, passing beneath the Porte St.-Martin and up a steep country lane toward the little Protestant cemetery. Despite the upheavals of the French Revolution—Louis was himself just six months away from the guillotine—an official state delegation paid its respects at the brief service. A few Americans who happened to be in Paris also turned up. Morris was too busy with preparations for a dinner party he was hosting that night.

Several weeks later—several weeks too late—a letter addressed to "John Paul Jones a citizen of the United States" arrived in Paris. President Washington had appointed him to a diplomatic post in the service of his adopted homeland.

How different was Jones' next public procession through Paris, in the summer of 1905, along the Avenue de l'Alma and the Champs Élysées. Resplendent battalions of French cavalry and infantry accompanied the coffin, along with high government officials and diplomatic staff. Hundreds of American sailors and marines in dress uniforms, including an honor guard handpicked for their height and good looks, also marched proudly. (Spectators thronged the streets, and Porter noted with satisfaction how the French ladies, when these bluejackets passed, exclaimed, "Quels beaux garçons!")

President Roosevelt, in his delight at Porter's success, had dispatched an entire squadron of American warships across the Atlantic to receive the body. "I have never seen so many flags—big ones, little ones, French, American—all fluttering in the breeze," an eyewitness recalled in the 1970s.

Jones' Annapolis memorial service was more splendid still. On April 24, 1906, much of Congress, the cabinet and the diplomatic corps gathered at the Naval Academy armory, along with French and American naval squadrons, the entire corps of midshipmen and thousands of onlookers. Looming above a casket at a flag-draped stage, Roosevelt hailed Jones' "indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death" and seized the opportunity to address current politics. "Those of you who are in public life have a moral right to be here at this celebration today only if you are prepared to do your part in building up the Navy of the present," T.R. declared in trademark style, flashing his teeth and thumping the podium.

Porter, too, eulogized the hero he had brought home. "His honored remains will be laid to rest in this historic spot in a mausoleum befitting his fame, but his true sepulcher will be the hearts of his countrymen," he told the assembled throng.

Yet amid all the hoopla, murmurs of skepticism were already audible. "There are many doubting Thomases who are not satisfied with the identification" of Jones' remains, The Literary Digest editorialized in its July 29, 1905, issue.

At least one such Thomas could be found in T.R.'s own cabinet. After Jones' return to America but before the commemoration, Secretary of the Navy Charles Bonaparte sent one of his aides to ask acting Secretary of State Alvey Adee for an independent autopsy before reburial. Hearing this request, the aide later recalled, Adee leapt up and ran into Bonaparte's office, from which "a strange bellowing sound" shortly emerged. As soon as the acting secretary of state had departed, the aide continued, Bonaparte "called me in to his office, and said that he had decided not to have any examination of Jones' body made at this time."

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